Learning a foreign language is hard. If it wasn’t, maybe I would already speak more than one! Sure, I took a language in high school like every good American. And I thank my lucky stars that I did not opt to learn Latin. I chose Spanish, the second most widely spoken language in the world. How useful! In my cocky, 16 year-old brain I was actually quite good at Spanish. When I switched high schools for my junior and senior year, the Spanish teacher there reaffirmed I was great at Spanish. When I traveled to Chilean Patagonia ten years later and met a lovely Australian couple who heard me pathetically finagle my way onto a sold out bus, they were impressed with my proficiency in Spanish (though they spoke none). And when I traveled to Spain with my mother later that year and ordered us cheese and tomato sandwiches (queso y tomate, like come on!), she insisted I was fluent.
With that kind of support and progression over the years, why would I even bother taking further Spanish lessons? Well deep down, the other 400 million Spanish speakers of the world and I realized I could not speak worth a mierda! To be honest, I travel a lot, and I have grown tired of fitting the stereotype that Americans only speak one language. But beyond that, speaking another language would make my life so much easier as a traveler. It opens a new world of friends I never had access to due to an inability to effectively communicate. Also, when I order food, it will increase the probability that I receive what I ask for. Winning all around. With that, I made the decision to transplant myself in Medellin, Colombia for a couple of months to learn Spanish once and for all.
A couple of things happen when you relocate yourself to a country where you kinda, sorta know the language. Aside from the all the benefits you will reap from total immersion, you are going to look like a complete idiot more often than you prefer. Like this is actually a step in language learning that is typically glossed over.
- Learn basic vocabulary
- Learn basic verbs and conjugations
- Start to put together sentences
- Start trying to speak sentences in public
- Look like a giant imbecile in public due to misunderstanding or misusing aforementioned vocabulary
All of these steps are required if you are going to make any progress. Even though awkward and embarrassed are my baseline state, I still struggled to put myself out there to practice. This may be the appropriate time to share a couple of laughable moments (in hindsight anyway) as I attempted to navigate my way through my new Spanish-speaking life.
There is Something on Your Back
I had just arrived in Medellin, flawlessly transported myself from the airport to my apartment, dropped my bag off, and set out to explore my new city! The neighborhood was beautiful, there were trees and plants despite being a city, and the restaurants and bars looked super trendy. Suddenly a woman approaches me and starts speaking Spanish (go figure). I had to put my Spanish thinking cap on and deliberately focus on what she was saying. While, I caught words I knew, it was ultimately her gestures toward my back that made me understand. “I know what is going on,” I thought. “I read about this on the Internet. This is a scam where she tells me something is on my back and tries to help me while someone else attempts to pickpocket me. Ohhhh hell no. Not today.” With that, I let my Spanish aptitude fly: “No, no, no, no,” and walked away. Upon heading back to my apartment, I met my roommate who had not been present when I initially arrived. After a warm greeting, she poignantly pointed out the luggage sticker attached to my back. The woman was so sweet and trying to help me, not rob me. I’m a jerk. The only redeeming part of this story is that I still don’t know how to say sticker in Spanish, so maybe more practice wouldn’t have changed this situation.
The major supermarket of Medellin is called Éxito. It is massive and has everything. I mean everything. During my first shopping trip, I had spent nearly two hours in the store prior to perusing the wine section. The wine was in a separate portion of the store complete with several dedicated employees. I wanted to discreetly check out the prices and get a feel if wine could be an affordable drink of choice during my time in Colombia. Much to my dismay, I was approached by one of the employees and asked if I needed help (in Spanish, duh). I replied that I was just looking (in Spanish, phew). I continued browsing and the woman approached me again. Now I must preface the next part of the conversation by saying that on occasion, people have assumed I am from Latin America due to my dark hair I presume (this is always before I open my mouth). The woman started questioning me, “Argentinian? Chilean?” “Wow,” I thought to myself, “I must have really been convincing when I told her I was just looking.” “No, no, soy Americana,” I said out loud. Cue face palm and bright red cheeks. She wasn’t asking if I was Argentinian or Chilean. She wanted to know which kind of wine I was looking for. Ugh. And that is how you effectively initiate a wine detox. I left that section immediately, never to return.
Ok, Ok, Those Things Happen, But Are You Sure I Can Do It?
We can probably all agree that immersing yourself in the environment of the language you are learning will yield quicker results. But for a lot of people, that is scary! Even if you arrive in a country knowing not a single word, you will see how truly resourceful you are until you learn enough words to communicate orally. So, yes, I know you can do it. Here are my tips that will guide you through the initial distress of being an uncouth stranger in a strange land:
Hand Signals are Universal
Looking for a bathroom? Cross your legs, squat a little, and put your hands over your crotch. I am willing to bet every single person knows what you are looking for. Hungry? Nothing like pointing at what someone else is eating. Or pointing at a picture. Or just sitting down until they bring you something. Trying to buy something? In nearly every country I have visited, the cashier has a calculator to type the price so we don’t have to say a word to each other. Miscommunications are avoided!
Smiles are also universal. Feel uncomfortable? Have no idea what is going on around you? Embrace the awkwardness and smile so at least you are a friendly awkward person.
Find a Partner in Crime
Chances are you aren’t the only one trying to learn a new language. Especially in Medellin, Colombia, many locals were trying to learn English as I was trying to learn Spanish. Nearly every night of the week, there were organized language exchanges in Medellin. It was a great opportunity to meet local friends and potentially practice outside of language classes or organized meetups.
Consider Private Lessons
I took both group and private lessons during my time in Medellin. There is nothing like individualized attention to quickly help you progress. Be open and eager. Prepare questions and ask anything and everything you can think of. This is your time.
Get Embarrassed but Don’t Stay Embarrassed
So you’re gonna say some stupid things. For me, this is the biggest motivation of all. I felt embarrassed that one time when I accidentally said something I didn’t mean, yadda yadda yadda and I sure don’t want it to happen again. This helps you determine what to study and practice. Use every little pitfall as motivation.
Live a Little
Like, I mean, be a normal person. Have a routine, go grocery shopping, dine in restaurants, take taxis. These are all normal, day-to-day activities that allow you to practice the most useful, practical language skills. Yeah, maybe you learned how to say where is the hospital or the library in class? But, seriously, how often do you go to those places? It is much more useful to practice giving the taxi driver directions to your apartment or asking where you can find almond milk in the grocery store (shocker: they do have it in Medellin!)
Apps, Apps, Apps
Not appetizers, sorry, I’m hungry…But the ones on your phone! There are a zillion to help get you started. These are perfect to get a foundation before going abroad to learn a language. They also help a ton once you return home to practice and maintain the newfound skills you have acquired. If you are trying to learn Spanish, SpanishDict is a godsend. It gives the most thorough definitions of words going from English to Spanish and vice versa. I have also recently discovered HelloTalk which allows you to converse with native speakers of the language you are learning and ideally they are trying to learn your language as well.
I look back on my time learning Spanish in Colombia very fondly. In fact, it was one of my favorite experiences in my past two years of full-time travels. If you are ever on the fence about going abroad to learn a language, I must say, just do it. There is no way you will regret it. Just be patient. The hardest part for me was thinking that a language can come easily. That I could go to Colombia for two months and speak without having to think. What did I come away with? A dose of humble pie, the ability to sing 20% of the lyrics to Despacito, enough embarrassing stories to last a lifetime, and the most solid foundation of Spanish that I will work hard to continually build upon until I am the American girl who speaks two languages fluently. So was it worth it? Sí.
59 thoughts on “Learning Spanish in Colombia (And How You Can Learn a Foreign Language Abroad Too)”
Haha, the wine story is priceless! I also learned Spanish in Colombia, I was very basic when I went there but it went fast since I´ve been already speaking French and taking a few classes before going! Immersion is the best to learn quickly – well, if you actually want to learn, that is ;-) Some people just don´t care, but not speaking the local language always makes me so embarrassed!
Thanks so much for your comment, Karin! I’m glad you appreciated the wine story. Haha! Which city did you learn Spanish? But I totally agree, I feel so much better when I can communicate in the local language.
Omgosh this was soooooo funny haha. No, I totally agree with your 5 points. You’re going to look stupid at some point but guess what, you’re putting in the work that most Americans won’t so GO YOU. Just to add to one of your points, taking a lover who speaks that language is always pretty dynamite knock out for me haha. It’s like having a private tutor all the time!
Hahaha! I am so glad you liked it and I love your comment! Thank you for your very practical addition. I can’t believe I missed that one!
My goal this year is to learn a 2nd language! I love your sense of humor – and you’re right, when you’re just learning something you are going to be embarrassed, but isn’t that better than never learning something at all?! Your post was great inspiration, thank you!!
That’s awesome, Cynthia. I hope you go embarrass the hell out of yourself this year!
Heh I took Spanish lessons in Panama for 3 weeks and I completely feel you about being good enough to pick up keywords but sometimes completely misunderstanding the entire sentence. And yeah I actually listened to Reggaeton to try and pick up more words, poquito poquito, suave suavecito~ :P
Love Colombia! Medellin was one of my favourite places there :)
When you quote Despacito in my comments section you are an absolute winner in my book! Learning a language is so hard! I’m glad you loved Medellin as much as I did
Great post! I love the way you write! It was so witty, I was LOLing all the way through this! I plan to go to Argentina this year and learn some Spanish too :)
LOLing all the way through is the highest compliment! Thanks, Brit! Good luck in Argentina!
Ha, I love your self-deprecating stories! Good for you for really throwing yourself out there and making a huge effort to learn. Medellin is a great city, too. I wasn’t the biggest fan of all time, but I understand how some travelers get stuck there!
Haha, thank you Kate! Part of the reason I personally loved Medellin because I was able to slow down and stay put which I hadn’t done in such a long time!
Love your post! And yes I agree, hand signals are universal! They’ve helped me so much. The cross legs for the bathroom never thought of that and is quite funny lol. I do like your tips on how to learn a new language in a foreign country. Thanks for sharing!
Of course and thanks for reading!!
I am learning Spanish online but must admit that talking to a local is the best way to learn any language. Internet has its limitations.
Definitely, I am back home now and I find it increasingly difficult to maintain the level I was at abroad!
I’ve been trying to learn Spanish off and on for a couple of years. I need to put practice into my daily routine or I’ll never progress!
Exactly, yet it is so easy to push off for another day!
These are great tips Cali! I have wanted to learn Spanish for SO long and think I need to just bite the bullet. I am planning on returning to Argentina next year so I better get started :p
Thank you so much! Definitely put a little work in now and you’ll feel so relieved once you arrive in Argentina!
Fun! May I ask which school you recommend?? I’m on my way to Medellin to study Spanish myself!
Awesome! I took group classes at Toucan which was great especially for the social aspect since they organized group activities. I also took private lessons through a woman named Yadi (you can find her on the Black Sheep Hostel website). She was incredible, but may potentially still be out on maternity leave. Have a blast! I miss Medellin a lot!
I love reading this, especially because I’m Colombian. Idk if this makes it better or worse, but even to my family in Spanish, when talking about stickers everyone says “un sticker.” I love your tips though. So relatable. I was the same with French in high school. The longer I’ve gone without studying the more I realize how little I know!
Ah! Un sticker! Who would have thought! Lol. Thank you for that little tidbit. I guess languages are the same as everything else…use it or lose it!
I totally agree that immersion is a necessary step when learning a language. I’ve always been super embarrassed by the fact that I’m 50% Hispanic and for still never picked it up (or made the time to) learn to speak Spanish fluently. Two years ago I spent two weeks in Nicaragua, and by the end I could have at least small conversations with locals and shop owners just based on the bit of vocabulary I already knew plus what I picked up. Still couldn’t hold an in-depth conversation but I definitely realized I knew a LITTLE bit more than I thought I did.
That is the best feeling when you can actually communicate! It is definitely worth recognizing those small victories!
learning a language abroad is something I have always wanted to do! I was in cuba for 10 days and my spanish improved soooo much because I was forced to speak it. Thanks for writing a great article and inspiring me!
Thanks for reading! I love being in the environment when I am forced to speak!
Really great lessons here. I found learning Spanish very difficult – I even lived in the Dominican Republic for two months and still struggled hard core (though of course I did improve). I like your tips here; they are helpful to me!
Glad you found it helpful, Lauren! Thanks for reading
This so awesome! What a better way to learn a language then overseas in the home countries of the language. What an experience and a fantastic thing to do. I would love to do this one day. Thank you for the great post! :)
Thanks for reading, Ashleigh! I hope you give it a shot, definitely an experience (…worth writing about, haha)
Haha this made me giggle! I can totally envision those scenarios. I live and work in Miami and have to speak Spanish quite a bit and it is often embarrassing. I totally want to do this immersion. Medellin looks amazing too!
Haha, I’m sure you know what I am talking about! Medellin is amazing and you aren’t too far away living in Miami…Just sayin’ ;)
Apps have seriously saved me when traveling. But you’re right, basic vocabulary words are really important. You gotta put at least a little effort in before you go!
It makes all the difference!
You are a really fun writer! Thanks for sharing your experiences. THE WIne story had me laughing!!
Haha, thanks so much Nina! Glad you enjoyed it!
What a fun and on point post. It’s so important to at least learn common phrases when visiting another country. It’s amazing more people don’t take the time and effort to do just that.
Thanks, Sue! Common phrases not only will help the traveler a ton, but the locals also appreciate it! Win win
Really good article and tips! I don’t speak any word of Spanish but in about two years I will go to South America as well. I have an app that can teach me some basic words and I would love to learn the language in a country where they speak it. Can I give you one tip about hand signals? They are universal yes, but not the signals on their own. In some countries, pointing is really rude. So I would check on that as well before you go somewhere ?
I definitely know what you mean about the hand signals. It is important to be careful More often than not, mine are more like full out charades like the bathroom example, haha!
Knowing or learning a foreign language always helps. For travellers it is a key that opens the doors for many new experiences. In India we usually know a minimum of 2 Indian languages in addition to English. But we try to learn a few the languages of the countries we travel to whenever possible.
Do you feel like already knowing three languages is helpful when you try to learn more?
I will have to show this to my husband, he has been trying to learn my native language Finnish. Good tips! I personally think that the best way to learn, is to travel somewhere where you actually have to use this language. It will both motivate you and make you learn fast since that is all you will hear.
Thanks, Paula! Sounds like a trip to Finland is in order!
Haha..:) Funny article! Yes, learning new language chan be very challenging. Good idea language exchange. Traveling in couchsurfing and workaway, meeting authentic people…. As mothertongue Italian, for me Spanish not difficult to understand.. At present I’m traveling often to Morocco. They speak good English, French, somebody German as well. The poorest countries are more motivated to learn other languages because tourists are their main source of income sometimes and businessmen investing in the country as well. I’m trying to learn some Darija and Amazigh at present. Mostly for respect and because I want to speak to old women there. But so difficult! Can’t stick more than 1-2 words in my mind..:(
Wow, Silvana! You are a language master. Your motivations to learn Darija and Amazigh (languages I admittedly have never heard of) are admirable!
I had taken Spanish classes when I was still studying at a university but I have forgotten what I learned. I wish that I know how to speak Spanish fluently too. It is definitely nice to learn a new language while interacting with the locals on a daily basis. I also did some of the suggestions that you mentioned when I went to Hong Kong. I just used hand signals and smile often. It is definitely a huge plus if you can speak more than one language. You’d feel smart and be more travel savvy. Best of luck in your goal to be fluent in Spanish. Maybe your blog will be written in Spanish someday. Adios, amiga!
Haha, muchas gracias, Iza!!
Such a fun post! Thanks for the “real” side of trying to learn a new language while travelling. I attempted to learn some basic German before touring Germany, Austria, and Switzerland … but was still left dumbfounded by local dialects :)
The accents and dialects are so tricky! All the progress I made in Medellin was deleted when I visited Cali and they spoke three times faster!
You have provided some wonderful tips to learn a foreign language. When we visited Europe recently, particularly Italy, we had installed some apps and also noted down some common Italian phrases. Although, we used them now and then, we did learn some of the words. I guess following your tips, we can pick the language much faster
Thanks Neha! I am particularly shy when starting a brand new language, so it is great that you were able to use some of your new vocab right off the bat!
Colombia sounds like a great place to learn Spanish. I would love to visit this country some day. Using apps looks very useful idea. Thanks for the informative post and great tips.
No problem! Thank you for reading!
I so relate to this. I have a terrible
Time learning languages and always look like a total moron when I try and speak. A lot of times people give me a blank stare like they don’t know what I’m saying. Always a good feeling. Lol. Great post.
Haha, thanks Kelly!
Awesome article, I always enjoy reading about other peoples’ experiences learning languages, especially abroad! I’ve just written an article about learning Spanish in Spain.
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